The Word from Mount Laughmore
A Conversation with Mort Walker
Copyright The HUMOR Project, Inc 1991 -- All rights reserved
Mort Walker is the world's most prolific cartoonist and is read by more than 200 million people in the United States every day and countless more abroad. Beetle Bailey appears in over 1800 newspapers and Hi and Lois reaches 1000+ papers. Mort may be the most frequently published author in history. And he does it just for laughs.
On September 4, 1990, Mort reached another milestone-- his buddy, Beetle Bailey, turned 40! During 40 years in syndication, Mort has lovingly exposed the frailties and foibles of the human family, whether set in the suburbia of Hi and Lois or the mire of Beetle's Camp Swampy.
Mort has won just about every award a cartoonist can win-- including the Reuben for "best cartoonist of the year" and he has been elected to The Museum of Cartoon Art Hall of Fame. He also had the blessing of being banned in the "Stars and Stripes" publication: After the Korean War was over, the military brass felt Beetle had to go because he was making fun of authority. The ban became a tempest in a teapot and the ensuing publicity rocketed Beetle's circulation overnight.
I was honored a couple years ago when Mort ordered a subscription to LAUGHING MATTERS plus all the back issues. And I was delighted to have a chance to meet him in person-- so that I could introduce him to you. As an added bonus, my nine-year-old son, Adam, who is a real fan of Mort's, had a chance to accompany me and meet him (and conduct his own informal interview). It was heartening to meet this creative comic genius who is also a warm, kind, unassuming, hard-working yet easy-going human being. The interview took place at Mort's studio, which is the former studio of Gutzon Borglum, who sculpted Mt. Rushmore. Mort should definitely be one of the faces inscribed on Mt. Laughmore.
I have interspersed his cartoons throughout the interview. These are reprinted by permission. All cartoons are copyrighted by King Features Syndicate. (P.S. I am tickled that Mort will be a speaker at the seventh annual international conference on THE POSITIVE POWER OF HUMOR & CREATIVITY, April 3-5, 1992.)
Joel Goodman: Rumor has it that the Pentagon recently gave you a "Certificate of Appreciation for Patriotic Civilian Service."
Mort Walker: It was really interesting to know that finally, after all these years and after all the fun I've made of them, they finally invited me down there. I also said that as hard as it is to find anything at the Pentagon, they finally found their sense of humor.
One general said, "You know we don't like a lot of things that you do in your strip," and I said, "Good!" He said, "I hope you treat us a little bit more kindly from now on." I said, "Don't expect anything."
JG: They're just trying to soften you up for the next 40 years.
MW: I said, "I wouldn't be doing my job if I weren't making fun of you." I told them, "I spent four years in the Army and 40 years getting even."
JG: Are you even yet?
MW: No, it will take me another 40 years to get even.
JG: Looking back in the other direction, I read that you had your first cartoon published when you were 11.
MW: Child Life magazine actually paid me for it. I'd worked all my life selling magazines, digging dandelions, delivering for grocery stores and drug stores, mowing lawns-- whatever I could do. Our whole family had to work. When I found out I could make money, even $1 selling a cartoon, that was the equivalent of 10 hours of work at the drugstore.
JG: Big bucks for the yucks.
MW: My father was so proud of me. If I could please him by drawing a silly idea.... from then on that's all I did. By the time I was 15 I probably had sold about 300 drawings to national magazines.
I started drawing cartoons when I was three. My father and mother were both artists. My father was also a musician, an architect, and a writer. It was a kind of renaissance family. We were poor, but we just sat around drawing and writing, singing and playing the piano. In fact, when I was about 15 and I found out that everybody wasn't a cartoonist, I was surprised. I just thought it came with the ears and the nose.
One thing I decided early on is that if you can write your own stuff, you can make twice as much money. You wouldn't have to hire a gag writer. So I set out-- not taking art courses-- but taking literature and writing courses. I was editor of our high school newspaper. When I got to college I was editor of the campus magazine. I came to New York and became an editor at Dell Publishing Company.
One of my magazines was 1000 Jokes. That was a very good magazine during the 40's. It was a lot of fun being editor of that magazine. We got all the rejects from The Saturday Evening Post. We had quite a lot of good material in there.
JG: You also were a ghost writer for a lot of comedians and movie stars-- including Jimmy Durante, Bob Hope, and Fred Allen. And you had worked with Hall, which was the predecessor of Hallmark.
MW: For about two years, I designed many of the Hallmark cards. I did all the Bambi cards; I did Dagwood and Blondie. In fact, this was probably the forerunner of what you'd call the studio cards which you see today. World War II had just started, and they realized that a lot of people were going to send soldiers cards. It was a big business then.
I was 18 and they called me. They liked my artwork, and they said, "What do you think of our cards?" I said, "They stink. I wouldn't even send one to my grandmother." They almost kicked me out. But since I was so brutally honest, they said, "Why not?" I said, "It's just too sentimental, too syrupy and soupy." And they said, "What would you do?" I said, "I'd do some funny cards. That's the kind of cards I like to get." They hired me on the basis of that.
JG: So you really might be the father of this whole booming card industry.
MW: I just did what I liked, and they accepted it.
JG: I'm also aware that at one point you had submitted 200 times before you were accepted?
MW: When I first came to New York I had $200 in my pocket that I had gotten from my salary when I was the editor of the magazine at the University of Missouri. That was my stake when I came to New York. I lived in a deserted-- or condemned-- brownstone building on East 78th Street in Manhattan, and I shared a bathroom with another artist on the third floor. I just had one room; I didn't even have any furniture. I went down to the local grocery store and got some orange crates to make tables. I found a roll-away bed in the basement.
I was submitting cartoons to magazines. The way the system worked then is that on Wednesdays the magazines would hold open house. The cartoonists would tramp from one magazine to another. I would see maybe 20 magazines, from The Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, etc. There were a number of magazines then that used cartoonists. I'd end up at The New Yorker and just leave a batch off there 'cause they never bought my stuff anyway. I sold them ideas, but they would never let me draw for them. I drew too funny, they said. So I did 200 cartoons before I sold one.
JG: How did you keep the faith in the midst of all that? That's a lot of doors to knock on.
MW: I had a little thing at the top of my drawing board that said, "I will not be denied." I also had another reminder which said, "If I can ever make $10,000 a year, I'll be happy. I don't want to get greedy." Little did I know how you change your mind as you get older.
I was determined. I used to take a look at what the other guys were taking around-- little sketches and pencil drawings. I thought, "If I draw mine on nicer paper in ink and put a little blue wash on them and pretty them up a little bit, maybe they'd start selling."
JG: I'm curious if your group of fellow cartoonists was a competitive traveling crew or a cooperative one.
MW: We were very helpful to each other. When I came to New York, I didn't know anybody. Somebody introduced me to one of the guys. He said, "Come on, I'll show you around." There were eight or nine in our pack, and we always had lunch together at The Pen and Pencil Restaurant.
We loved to play tricks on each other. One time, I came out of the men's room at Radio City Music Hall near a big bank of ten telephones. I was standing there with the guys, and one of the phones started to ring. Somebody said, "Why don't you answer it, Mort?" I picked up the phone and the voice said, "Uh, Mort?" I said, "Yeah?" He said, "This is John Bailey (Editor of The Saturday Evening Post). I've been looking all over town for you." I said, "Really, no kidding? How did you find me?" The guys were cracking up. I looked over to the next booth, and there was Jerry, one of my buddies, with one of his practical jokes. It's not fair to take a kid from Kansas and do that to him.
JG: Now the kid from Kansas evidently was riding the subway at one point, and that became a way of turning lemons into lemonade. You were not too fond of riding that subway...
MW: I hated it. I'd get to work with my clothes torn, buttons off my shirt and everything. Coming home one day I thought, "There's got to be a better way to make a living. I had become, by that time, the top-selling magazine cartoonist in the business. By sheer weight of numbers, I sold more than anybody else. I looked at it, and I said, "I only made $7500, and I'm the top seller? This is not a very good business." I hadn't even reached my $10,000 yet. I was still broke, so I thought, "I've got to do something else. I think I'll do a comic strip."
A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, they say, but watch out for that first step-- it's a biggie. Starting a comic strip is like that-- who knows where it will lead you? I didn't.
I thought back to my fraternity brothers at the University of Missouri-- how about a college comic strip? Nobody is doing a strip about college, and I'll just put all my fraternity brothers in. They all were weird people with funny nicknames. You had "Sweat Sock," "Bitter Bill," "Diamond Jim," and "Spider". I just caricatured each one of them. I even had my college professor in there, Professor Wrench. I drew it up in about three days, took it to King Features, and they bought it. And I thought, "Wow! Pretty easy."
I thought I was going to be rich and famous right off, but the strip didn't sell that well. It started off in 12 papers. At that time people almost resented college students. The big boom in college hadn't started yet. People couldn't see their own experiences in it.
Then, within six months the Korean War had heated up, and they were drafting college students. One of my editors said, "Put him in the Army!" I had the research to go with it, having spent about four years in that miserable place. So I put him in the Army, and the circulation just took off. Then the next biggest boost I got was when the Stars and Stripes ban hit, and that became a cause celebre throughout the whole world, because of the big brass stepping on the little GI. "No sense of humor" as a lot of the headlines read. It was about 15 years before they reinstated it.
JG: How did you come up with the name "Beetle Bailey?"
MW: Initially it was "Spider" after my college fraternity brother. I went to King Features, and they already had a secondary character in a strip named Spider. So they said, "You've got to get a better name," so I just thought of another bug. Actually there was a comedy team when I was a kid called "Beetle and Bottle." I always thought it was a funny name the way it rattled off your tongue. So I called him "Beetle," and then they said, "Now you need a last name." So I named him after the cartoon editor at The Saturday Evening Post who had first spotted him in one of my drawings and said, "Feature that guy. He's a funny looking guy."
JG: So Beetle Bailey was born. I wonder if you were the Good Morning, Korea of your day back then when Beetle was first starting out, taking a lighter look at Army life.
MW: I've deliberately never put them into a hot war because I know that it's not funny. So I thought, anybody who goes into the service has the experience of bootcamp. We'll just keep him in bootcamp forever.
I get letters from people all the time, petitions from 50 soldiers saying, "We want Beetle to get a promotion," but it wouldn't be funny. It's like Li'l Abner getting married-- it killed him. It killed the strip. In a world that's changing too fast, it's good to have something permanent. I've just stayed with Beetle's character as it began to emerge. He subscribes to the philosophy, "Whenever the urge to work comes over me, I lie down until it goes away."
Many people wonder why a military strip like Beetle appeals to such a wide audience. The truth is, it isn't a military strip. The Army is just a convenient setting that everyone understands. The pecking order doesn't have to be explained and the role of the poor guy at the bottom of the ladder is classic in literature. Our job in the strip is to knock down idols and punch holes in pomposity. Americans feel that authority should be questioned, not blindly followed, and people in authority in this country accept this resistance as an inalienable right.
JG: On October 18, 1954, you and Dik Browne widened your audience further by giving birth to Hi and Lois.
MW: That was after the Korean War, and I thought that the strip wasn't going to survive as an Army strip. So I took Beetle home on furlough, introduced his sister, Lois, her husband, Hi, and their kids. I thought, "Well, I'll do a different kind of a family strip. I'll have a conflict between the brothers and sisters and in-laws." Nobody liked it. People wrote and said, "Put him back in the Army. Put him back in the mud."
JG: And Hi and Lois has gone on now for over 36 years.
MW: That is what's fun about doing a comic strip: you're not stuck with your first mistake-- you're free to make new mistakes at any time. Incidentally, that's a favorite thing in trivia quizzes. Trivial Pursuit uses the question, "Who is Beetle's sister?" It's Lois. JG: Were Hi and Lois really your own family? Have you been cartooning your own diary for everyone to see?
MW: I began observing my children, making notes, seeing how they did things. I instituted a regular feature in Hi and Lois called "Better Words" at one time, where children have better words for things than we do-- like "Hello Phone" and "Flutterby" and "Busketti". "Entire State Building" is one of my favorites. I thought, "Gee, that really describes that building, doesn't it?"
I always carry a little book around with me. When I see or hear something that might work into a gag, I just make a little note of it. That helps me observe real life and get real experiences in it so people can relate to it.
JG: This is one part of your own creative process-- you observe and then you capture those observations. What are some other tricks of the creative trade?
MW: If I go to a party or sit around with my buddies, I can always come up with snappy punchlines. I thought, "Why can't I do that when I'm working?" So what I do is just start writing without any goal in mind. I don't wait for an idea to jell before I start writing. I just start writing, like they start talking, and I come up with the punchline. I don't have those writers' blanks that everybody worries about. I write anything that comes to my mind without any gagline in sight. Usually it merely serves the purpose of keeping me awake but very often, when the writing reaches the point of the punchline, it suddenly springs from the ashes like phoenix in all its glory.
JG: You defer judgment and jump-start your creativity...
MW: It doesn't always work, but you get a lot of stuff to choose from. What I find is that I'll write 20-30 ideas in an hour. Those are real quick notes.
Another device I use is just to look at a funny picture. Sometimes I'll get a picture from another cartoonist or one of my old cartoons and just try to think of a new idea to go around it. I start with a funny picture and figure out how to get into it.
I actually start with the last panel of someone with his nose caught in a Cutty Sark bottle, for instance, and write backwards to fill the lead-in panels logically. Over the years I've become one of the most backward writers in the business.
We usually write almost a year in advance, and I put everything into a fireproof vault. I've got plenty of work there. Then I go through them, maybe three times, weeding them out during the year until I get what I think are the best ideas. Then I take a look and say, "How can I improve it?" You usually love your stuff right in the beginning. "The best idea I ever got!" But then after it sits for a while, it starts to smell. You spray it with something. You go right over to the drawing board and try to do the best you can with it.
JG: In looking back over the years, have you noticed any trends in the field of cartooning/humor?
MW: I was elected Man of the Year by the National Conference of Christians and Jews. In my acceptance speech, I outlined the change in attitudes about ethnic humor in this country. How going back to the early comics, they were all ethnic. The Yellow Kid, which was the first comic strip, was about Irish slum kids.
I told how that was not acceptable anymore and how we've all had to change. I love to quote the author of The Education of Hyman Kaplan. To him, humor is "the affectionate insight into the affairs of man." I love that; that's what Hi and Lois is. Jules Feiffer and I always lock horns because he says you've got to hate to be funny. You've got to be on the attack. And I say, "No, Jules. No you don't. You can be funny by being affectionate." The main ingredient in humor is the revelation of human nature to ourselves.
I like the kind of humor where people will laugh at a gag and then have an echo, a little later on they'll think, "Oh, that's just like my uncle or just like my brother," then they laugh all over again every time they think of it. That's the kind of humor I strive for.
JG: This is the laughter of recognition and identification, like you're-looking-in-their-window kind of humor. Maybe your next award this year will be The Peeping Tom Award.
MW: That's the way a lot of the letters on Hi and Lois come in all the time. "You must have been looking in my window." "I didn't know that was funny when it happened, but now that I read your strip, it happens to everybody. Now it's funny."
JG: You mentioned the evolution of ethnic humor and the course that's taken. As you look back over the last 40 years, are there other major trends or significant happenings in the field?
MW: I noticed a big difference when television happened. People now don't want to spend time with story strips, because they can get that same story in a half an hour on television that would take maybe 10 weeks, 15 weeks, to tell in a comic strip. Story strips were big when I came up: Terry and the Pirates, Little Orphan Annie, Phantom, all of those. Those were the things that excited everybody, but you can't get most of the papers to print them anymore.
In spite of television, I predict we will always have some sort of newspaper put in our hands and it will probably contain comics. You can't wrap a fish in a TV set and you can't swat a fly with a computer. We need newspapers.
JG: Tips for our readers? In each issue we try and provide some thoughts on how people can develop and apply their own sense of humor, either personally or on the job.
MW: I'd like to give some advice to all the people who think humor is trivial and cartoons are trivial, ephemeral, simple, and for children only. Humor, as you've proven in your magazine, has so many beneficial effects on your life. It has beneficial effects on your body, on your whole well-being, the muscles in your stomach and your brain. When you laugh, your blood circulation and lungs are better. Every part of your body benefits from laughter.
Also in your relationships with other people, it's a nice kind of lubricant for friendships and even making new friends. Once you get 'em laughin', you've got 'em as a friend. People love to laugh, and I think that the importance of humor is too much trivialized. People say to me, "Cartooning is a nice hobby. What do you do for a living? You spend all day doing that stuff? Do you do any serious work?"
JG: So people are still telling you to grow up, get serious, and act your age.
MW: Mike Peters, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winning political cartoonist who also does the Mother Goose and Grimm strip, showed me his high school yearbook where his teacher wrote, "Someday, Michael, you might make something of yourself if you grow up and stop drawing those silly pictures." (See an upcoming issue of Volume 8 for an interview with Mike.)
In the art courses I took, my teachers would always say, "Agh, that's too much like a cartoon." That's the way I see things; my whole life is through a blurred comic vision of some kind.
JG: We make a distinction in our work between behaviors that are childish and perspectives that are childlike, and we suggest that having a childlike perspective, in fact, can be one of the most mature coping mechanisms for otherwise serious reality.
MW: If I had to typify the average cartoonist, I would say that it was someone who is not quite grown up in his or her attitudes, because I think the childlikeness among the better ones is a very charming and attractive kind of innocence.
JG: Now one of your "children" is The Museum of Cartoon Art. How was this "child" born?
MW: I guess it had to be about 25-30 years ago, there was a movement in the National Cartoonists Society to start a museum. I worked on it with my mentor, Rube Goldberg, along with Milton Kaniff, Dik Brown, and about a dozen of the top-name cartoonists in the country, but nothing ever materialized.
Little by little, people lost interest or got discouraged and did nothing. So, I became a committee of one who kept the flame alive. I happened to be playing golf one day with an executive at The Hearst Corporation, who was also a member of the foundation. I said, "You know, old man Hearst was the guy who really got comics started. I just think it would be highly appropriate if they would fund a museum of cartoon art." The guy says, "I think you're right. I'll see what I can do." That's what really got us going. Seventeen years later the museum is really humming.
JG: And forty years later, you're really humming... and haha-ing.
MW: One of the reasons I always wanted to do this is I remember my father reading the comics. His favorite was Moon Mullins, which was full of sight gags and real people getting in trouble. He would laugh so hard that he'd fall off his chair and tears would roll down his cheeks, and he'd gasp for breath. I'd stand there looking at him and say, "I want to do that to people."
To create an idea out of thin air, to think of a situation in your mind that becomes a good gag that someone is going to enjoy is an absolute thrill. The amazing thing is that a thought that you put down on paper might live forever by being quoted. Or, better yet, it might end up on someone's refrigerator someday. I think some great ideas are expressed in comic strips. They should be observed and studied and preserved because they are a chronicle of everyday life, and there's some great philosophy in them.
One time, we were in South Carolina and went over to the Veterans Hospital where there were soldiers back from Vietnam who were wounded. They received us very warmly. We were fun for them; we did drawings and talked. I went into this one ward; there was a guy there with his back toward everybody. The nurse said, "He hasn't talked since he's been here." So I went up and I said, "Would you like for me to draw you a picture?" and he said, "No." I said, "I think I'll draw one anyway. You know Beetle Bailey?" He said, "Yeah" from his back. "OK, I'm going to draw a picture of Beetle Bailey," and he kind of began to roll over a little bit and saw the drawing. He broke into a smile, and then I did him some other drawings. When I left the nurse said, "That's the first time he's communicated with anybody." I had a great feeling. Humor or a familiar face brought him around. It was the first time they had seen him smile. A breakthrough.
JG: In between the smiles, how do you keep your balance? It seems like you're juggling at least 7 or 8,000 balls there.
MW: Who had the funny line on that: "It's like driving two tons of canaries in a one ton truck. You've got to keep half of them in the air at all times." That's what I feel like it is around here sometimes.
JG: And yet, you seem to be calm, cool, collected.
MW: You've got to have some fun in life. You can't work all the time. I get my work done easily, so I've got plenty of time for funning around.
Any kind of profession you're in, if you're creative you can probably excel. I always thought that I would probably be successful in any business I went into, because I'm not afraid of work, and I can always create an idea that will make it work.
JG: Some people label that workaholism; other people label it the joy of living and working and having your life's work be a life-force for you.
MW: No matter what you do, people can put a bad label on it. It doesn't bother me. I just do what I like to do and have a great time doing it. It's been my joy to think that I've added to the good humor of the past forty years.
JG: And we all hope you keep raining your humor on us for the next forty years, days, and nights!
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